The Magazine

Popes and Jews

Truths and Falsehoods in the history of Catholic-Jewish relations.

Nov 5, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 08 • By DAVID G. DALIN
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The Popes Against the Jews
The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism
by David I. Kertzer
Knopf, 355 pp., $27.95

OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, Catholic-Jewish relations and the role of the popes in European anti-Semitism have been the subject of what seems like innumerable books. Most of these anti-papal diatribes--by John Cornwall, Garry Wills, and others--have focused their attacks on the alleged silence during the Holocaust of Pius XII, who has been vilified as "Hitler's Pope." In "The Popes Against the Jews," however, the Brown University historian David Kertzer skips over Pius XII to attack the entire modern papacy from 1814 to 1939.

That some popes, both medieval and modern, were anti-Jewish is a matter of historical fact. The most notorious papal action in modern times was the 1858 kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, a six-year-old Jewish boy in the papal state of Bologna, about which Kertzer, a specialist in nineteenth-century Italian history, wrote a book in 1997. On the instructions of Pope Pius IX, Edgardo was forcibly removed from his parents' home after one of the Mortaras' Catholic servants told authorities about secretly baptizing the boy.

As it happens, no papal action in modern times precipitated as widespread and outraged a public reaction, even among Catholics, as did the Mortara kidnapping, a point which Kertzer himself documented in his earlier book. But what's more to the point--and contrary to the underlying thesis of Kertzer's new volume--Pius IX's action in the Mortara case was tragically unique, rather than historically representative of the papacy.

Beginning during the fourteenth century, a tradition of papal support for the Jews of Europe began to emerge. Kertzer and other recent papal critics have largely missed this "philo-Semitic" tradition. By portraying Catholic-Jewish relations as a history of the popes against the Jews, alleging that the papacy has played a disproportionate role in the rise of modern anti-Semitism, Kertzer ignores the fact that during periods of intensified anti-Semitic persecutions several popes served as protectors of Jewry--especially of the Jews of Rome--upholding the Jewish right to worship freely in their synagogues and publicly defending Jews against a host of anti-Semitic allegations.

THUS, FOR EXAMPLE, Kertzer devotes three chapters to the horrifying allegation that, during the Passover holiday, Jews engaged in the ritual murder of Christian children, to use their blood in the baking of the unleavened bread eaten at the Passover meal. Yet he makes little mention of the relevant fact that a succession of popes since the twelfth century (when the accusation of Jewish ritual murder was first made) were vocal in their condemnation of this libel. In 1247 Pope Innocent IV promulgated the first of several papal bulls devoted to refuting the ritual-murder libel.

Innocent's bull set an important precedent that subsequent popes would follow over the centuries. As the historian Marc Saperstein has pointed out, whenever "charges of ritual murder were brought to the attention of popes, they regularly condemned them as baseless and inconsistent with Jewish religious teaching." In 1758, in response to an appeal from the Jewish community of Poland, Pope Benedict XIV appointed Cardinal Lorenzo Ganganelli (who would later become Pope Clement XIV) to investigate the ritual-murder accusation. After investigating for more than a year, Cardinal Ganganelli produced a report that exonerated the Jews--a document Cecil Roth, a preeminent scholar of Italian Jewish history, has called "one of the most remarkable, broad-minded, and humane documents in the history of the Catholic Church."

This historic report was later cited by Pope Pius X, who repudiated the "infamous fanaticism" of the ritual-murder charge. Indeed, despite Kertzer's suggestions, the charge of ritual murder was not supported by Pope Pius X, who publicly denounced the accusation in the most famous ritual-murder case of modern times, the 1913 trial of the Russian Jew Mendel Beilis. While Kertzer is correct in arguing that some Catholic priests and newspapers lent their support to the libel, the papacy persistently opposed it.